A. J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically: Should You Follow the Bible Literally?
When I began this blog project in 2013, I heard of A. J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically. On the surface, this book’s narrative sounded exactly like my blog: the author spent a year investigating the Bible. The details of his experience are vastly different, however. I wanted to know what was in the Bible, which is so often used to justify homophobia. Jacobs was curious what would happen if a modern person attempted to follow the Bible, literally.
I put off reading his book, in part because I had to read the Bible first. Once my project expanded in order to include what other books could add to my understanding of the Bible, I sought his out. Although I wasn’t exactly sure how, I figured his story would add something to my overall experience. When I received the book, the cover made an impression, one that caused me to question the extent to which I would gain something useful. Dressed in a white robe, a black and red striped covering, and clutching two small stone tables in one hand and a to-go coffee cup in the other, the author looks a bit ridiculous. He also bears more than a passing resemblance to the actor who plays Jonah on Veep, a likeness I could not ignore as I read. So I could tell the read would be entertaining, perhaps even silly, but I wondered how much depth there would be. How much would I actually learn and how serious did he take this experience? Was he taking this seriously?
Then I read the book.
Does his story tear the Bible apart? Not really. He does approach this project with skepticism—how could you not? As a modern resident of New York City, he clearly had his work cut out for him—as even a casual reader of the Bible would understand. For the most part, he succeeds in his mission, although his journey is actually comprised of small victories, not a prolonged adherence to a way of life—the only thing he maintains from start to finish is the growth of his beard, which he never cuts. All the other major rules (and not just the ones in Leviticus) receive focused attention for a number of weeks or a month at a time. But that doesn’t diminish what he learns by doing this. By the story’s end, he’s developed much respect for what the Bible teaches, and in ending the experience, he has an appreciation that transcends day-to-day rules: he has an enlightened perspective on how to be a better person, one who listens first and speaks later; more respectful of strangers, etc.
This is the big take-away from his book: you don’t need to adhere to every point in the Bible in order for it to make you a better person. He’s learned to honor the spirit of what it teaches, and for me that was the most satisfying point in the book.
This month, I will discuss my thoughts on his journey. Beginning with his experience with the Old Testament, I’ll cover how he felt living by these ancient rules, then I’ll discuss how he handles the “anti-gay” content, then his experience with the New Testament. Last, I’ll wrap-up my final thoughts about his book. If anything, I would have liked to find out what his wife thought of all of this, beyond the scattered mention of what she has to say. I was endlessly curious what her experience was being forced to follow the Bible by default—although she may not have followed the rules directly, the fact that her husband did clearly impacted her life. As this was not her project, I wondered how it felt not having a real say (even though she is able to protest a few moves here and there. As a gay man who doesn’t follow the Bible’s rules, I could feel her pain about having it forced on you regardless. Maybe her book is next (if she ever decides to write one).